Thursday, April 30, 2009

Boustan, Montreal, QC

“Every sandwich has to be right. I treat each one like it's my sandwich. As soon as my eyes are happy, I know it's ready."

Boustan owner Imad Smaidi, McGill Tribune, 11/18/03

Let's cut to the chase. My favorite food destination on the planet is a nondescript Lebanese basement sandwich shop in my hometown of Montreal. Even though the menu primarily deals with Lebanese street food, which is found in dozens of similar restaurants around the city, the philosophy and attention to detail at Boustan, outlined in the above quote, elevates its fare miles beyond its competitors into some of the best food you will ever eat.

Boustan has reached such a status with me that it's the first place I visit every time I return home, and I usually manage to squeeze in two meals there every time I'm in town. You'll want to order the chicken shawarma sandwich, which is a handheld culinary marvel. Each sandwich is handmade to order and consists of a hollowed out pita, filled first with chicken shaved from the vertical spit of meat rotating within inches of a hot gas flame. The stack of meat, three or so feet tall, consists of layers of marinated chicken breast seasoned with tomatoes and onions that release their juices as they slowly cook. The edges of the stack get crispy as they rotate next to the flame and the shaved pile is a perfect mix of crispy skin, bits of fat, and lean, juicy white meat.

The rest of the sandwich is stuffed with slices of tomato, lettuce tossed with parsley, neon pink pickled turnip spears, and a generous dollop of garlicky mayo. If you want a little heat, ask for it spicy, and watch as a spoonful of mystery sauce from an unmarked casserole dish is spread on your sandwich. It won't burn your mouth, but it will give your sandwich some extra zing. The extra touch that sets Boustan above its competitors is the last step. The filled sandwich is finally placed over a gas flame for a few moments to slightly char the pita, giving it enough crispiness and heating the ingredients inside just enough so that they meld together. The sandwich is carefully wrapped in a clean sheet of wax paper, and presented to you like the gift that it is.

It's hard to describe the perfect combination of flavours and textures in every bite of a Boustan chicken shawarma sandwich. The chicken dominates with its toothsome saltiness, dripping juices, and divine crispiness. The pickled turnip spears provide a touch of bitterness and ample crunch. The tomatoes provide acidity and moisture, the lettuce brings a cool sense of balance, while the mayo binds it all together in garlicky bliss. The pita provides a crispy shell and a hint of smokiness from the gas flame.

Frankly, this sandwich is so good, I wouldn't order anything else. People swear by their falafel, and they have a variety of other menu items. The garlic potatoes are good, but still can’t compete with the sandwich. One order consists of a small plate of cubes of deep fried potatoes which are tossed with salt and herbs, and topped with a generous spoonful of Boustan’s garlic mayo. To be sure, these are delicious, but the chicken shawarma is out of this world good.

The most popular time for a Boustan meal is at 3AM when the nearby bars and clubs empty, and the drunk masses stop for a late night bite before stumbling home. However, the best time to stop by for a visit is on a Sunday afternoon, when the rest of the city is hung over. You won't be rushed, and you can take a moment to examine the pictures on the counter which depict the various politicians and hockey players who have similarly enjoyed food bliss.

One close friend, a chef at one of the city's finest restaurants, has been known stop by Boustan after his shift ends to order a half dozen sandwiches to get him through the next few days. Even though I'd hyped it up relentlessly, Tamar insisted that it lived up to it's lofty expectations on our recent visit to the city and has since expressed cravings to return.

The service can be brusque, the basement dining area is sometimes slightly grimy and filled with drunk club kids, but order two chicken shawarma sandwiches, find yourself some space to sit down, and I promise you won't go home disappointed. I know that's what I'll be doing next time I'm in town.

Boustan is located at 2020 Rue Crescent in downtown Montreal, QC. They are open until 4AM and will often deliver to nearby locations if they aren't too busy. Call 514-843-3576 to place your order.

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